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Criminal justice

Challenges in prison during COVID-19

A person picks up a Catch22 Justice booklet from a chair. Overlaid is text that reads: "Wisdom Wednesdays: Justice Blog Series".

The economic, physical, and mental impacts of COVID-19 have been felt acutely by us all over the last year. For many of us, we have been able to make the most of technology to feel connected and learn how to collectively navigate life in a pandemic. Whilst the pandemic has been difficult, this is an experience we have been able to share together – albeit remotely.

But for people in prison, or for their families, it is much harder: at times throughout the last year, social visits have been suspended, and individuals are faced with spending up to 23 hours a day behind doors, without access to technology, to reduce the spread of the virus.

The impact of COVID-19 restrictions in prisons

Whilst lockdown has been difficult for people across the country, prisons have been faced with even harsher restrictions, leading to increased isolation as people can be in their cells for almost the entire day and lose contact with family and friends.

In a report published in February 2021, HM Inspectorate of Prisons found that on average, since March 2020, adults in prisons have had only 90 minutes out of their cell each day. Having so little time outside and reduced contact with other people takes a huge toll on their mental health, which has resulted in an increase in reports of self-harm; alarmingly, in May, there were five suicides in prisons over six days.

The restrictions also mean that those in prison aren’t able to see their family and friends. In March 2020, face-to-face prison visits were stopped until early July. When lockdown rules were reintroduced, the visits were stopped again in adult prisons in November.

This is particularly challenging for those who are parents in prison: 300,000 children in the UK are affected by a parent in prison. It is important that children of parents in prison can see them face to face to maintain their relationship. However, many worry their children will not recognise them as a result of this reduced contact, and that this could have a detrimental effect on children’s mental health.

This is exacerbated by a lack of access to technology, creating barriers for those in prison when it comes to speaking not only to their loved ones, but also to prison staff. Staying connected digitally has been vital in keeping contact for us all, and nine months after the pandemic a video call system was implemented, which allowed one 30-minute call a month. Although this is an effort, it creates many new challenges like the quality of calls, the calls dropping due too much movement and not enough time for conversation after the technical issues have been resolved.

Supporting service users in prison

Catch22’s justice services provide intervention and rehabilitation to people in prison and in the community. We work across 18 prisons and in the last year, worked with 38,700 service users in custody, despite the challenges that the pandemic has brought. Catch22’s justice services provide intervention and rehabilitation to people in prison and in the community. Our work is based on risk and need, tailored support to each service user and building high quality relationships with service users providing long term support.

One of the prisons we work in is HMP Thameside, where our Offender Management service worked with 2,894 individuals over the last year. The caseworkers at HMP Thameside communicate over the phone with service users, which has made it difficult to maintain the quality of their service before the pandemic, but by adapting and working to each individual’s needs they are still able to provide the support that is required.

Resettlement Caseworker, Courtney McMahon, shares her experience of working with a service user who needed additional support during the pandemic:

“I worked with a service user, who has previously been diagnosed with PTSD and depression, who expressed that they needed more support with their mental health. He had attempted suicide in the past and was showing signs of distress.

“I made contact with the mental health team who arranged for a new mental health assessment. A nurse saw him the same day to discuss and address his needs further, and I also arranged for a welfare check as I felt he needed some extra support while in custody.

“The service user also informed me that they needed some immigration support. When I spoke to their case manager, I understood that they were awaiting deportation, so a phone call was arranged to provide an opportunity for the service user to ask any questions they had and to understand what this meant for them.

“By providing this service user with support for their mental health and concerns about immigration, we have been able to ensure that they can get the correct help, both for their safety and state of mind. This made him understand his time in custody and eased any worries and uncertainties he had.

Improving support for people in prison post-pandemic

There is support for people in prison and efforts are being made to continue that support during the pandemic. However, the pandemic has highlighted the additional challenges that people in prison face, as the restrictions are stricter than in the community. This needs to be tackled to support the mental health and relationships of those in prison. We want to see:

A digital revolution

Only three out of the thirteen prisons we work in have in-cell telephony and firewalls which means that our staff aren’t able to access simple digital platforms to enable them to do their jobs most effectively and therefore help our service users. When prisoners have been required to have even less contact with staff, this has had a huge impact on mental wellbeing and rehabilitation – many prisoners for example are unable to access the offending behaviour interventions they need. As mentioned before, those in prison can’t see their families which also impacts their mental health and their children’s and being digitally connected to them is important. We need third sector organisations such as Catch22 to provide evidence and recommendations to the Ministry of Justice on how IT security can be adequately addressed and how we can circumnavigate risk-averse approaches to technology.

Flexibility of the rules to respond to crisis situations – and beyond

During a time of crisis, whilst there may be measures that need to be implemented across the whole of the prison setting (for example, the prohibition of all visitors to prisons), there is also the need for individual prisons to take decisions based on the particular needs of their population and maintaining the health and wellbeing of the prison population. This could be in relation to the use of technology, the integration of resettlement teams within the custodial setting, or the movement of prisoners, for example.

Applied outside a crisis, giving governors the autonomy to make prompt, defensible decisions based on local issues is a much-needed reform. One of the benefits of having an in-custody resettlement support means we have been able to offer support throughout the pandemic. No other provider has been allowed into some of the prisons we work in and this will have resulted in offenders being released into the community without any support. This has only reinforced our view on the need to base resettlement and rehabilitation teams within prisons.

Investment in prison education

Investment in prison education would have a transformational effect on the ability of an individual to maintain their health and wellbeing, this is much needed as we know the effects of being inside for most of the day is detrimental. The education can enable them to succeed in employment, and many other aspects of their life on release. Rehabilitation would be more effective and support mental wellbeing, re-offending rates would be reduced, and communities strengthened.